The man who runs the Horse Park was speaking of the dedicated group of employees who run the Hall of Champions, where the legendary racehorse lived the past 23 years.
John Henry was euthanized Oct. 8 at age 32.
"We all know John selected his friends carefully," Nicholson said to laughter from the crowd of about 500. "He was never accused of being overabundant with his affection."
But, Nicholson added, "You were his special friends."
Besides Nicholson, other speakers at the ceremony included former Kentucky Gov. Martha Layne Collins, former Keeneland president James E. "Ted" Bassett III, jockey Chris McCarron, and Tom Levinson, whose stepfather, Sam Rubin, raced John Henry.
Following the ceremony, Bassett credited trainer Ron McAnally with convincing Rubin to send John Henry to the Horse Park. "It wasn't easy getting him," Bassett said, "but the catalyst was Ron. He told Sam Rubin this would be the ideal place" for John Henry to live out his his life.
The gelding, who was bred in Kentucky by Golden Chance Farm, won 39 of 83 starts, including 16 grade I races, and retired with record earnings at the time of $6.5 million.
"With John Henry, what you saw was what you got," Collins said. "We say goodbye, but we will remember him forever."
Nicholson recounted how John Henry was paraded before thousands of school children over the years and the staff would speak of the horse's humble beginnings. "We would tell these kids that it is OK if not every believes in you; you can still succeed.
"As we have said right here on this spot by the Hall of Champions maybe 10,000 times before, I say to you," Nicholson said in closing, "Ladies and Gentleman, we give you the great John Henry."